Next month Timothy McVeigh is scheduled to be put to death for his part in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed over 160 people. In a recently-published book he has freely admitted his own guilt and even defends what he did. This would appear to be a good test case for the debate over capital punishment. The question might be put this way: Are there crimes so heinous that the only civilized response is for the state to say (acting through the judicial process) that the persons involved should be put to death? The answer from the Bible is a clear yes. In the Old Testament there were certain instances when God mandated the death penalty for particular crimes. Genesis 9:6 lays the general theological foundation for capital punishment: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” The reason given is that man is made in the image of God. Therefore, to murder another person is to attack the very God who made him. Those who take life wantonly show that they disrespect the sanctity of life itself. Such a person has forfeited his own right to life.
This principle is extended in a number of directions in the Old Testament. The death penalty was prescribed for murder (Exodus 21:12), working on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2), cursing your father or mother (Leviticus 20:9), adultery (20:10), sodomy (Leviticus 20:13), rape (Deuteronomy 22:25), and kidnapping (Exodus 21:16). It should be observed that each of these crimes constitutes an assault on God’s Law, or on one of God’s institutions (such as marriage and the family), or upon a person created in God’s image.
Romans 13:1-7 establishes the general principle of capital punishment in the New Testament. It teaches us that human government is ordained by God (verse 1), that government should promote righteousness and punish evil (verse 3), and that when we do wrong, we should fear punishment for the one in authority “does not bear the sword for nothing” (verse 4). The secular authorities are God’s servants bringing wrath on evildoers.
I do not mean to argue that the death penalty should be applied today in all the cases mentioned in the Old Testament, nor do I wish to argue against DNA testing, the appeals process, or the current moratorium on capital punishment in Illinois. And I am not suggesting that capital punishment is always a deterrent to crime, except in the sense that the person executed has been permanently deterred from further lawbreaking.
My point is simpler and more basic. There are times when society must express its revulsion over certain crimes by taking the life of the person who commits those crimes. Timothy McVeigh forfeited his right to life when he set off the bomb that killed so many people.